Down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico; Journey's end. Mark, "Perhaps my biggest surprise of the journey was the, at least superficial, health and cleanliness of the rivers and lakes."
Image by Mark Kalch courtesy Mark Kalch, SOURCE
Diary entry: "My journey to the source began from the entrance to Hell Roaring Canyon and would take me 6.5 hours on foot and snow shoe. A tough slog on the canyon rim, beside Hell Roaring Creek and slipping, sliding moraine in between. With can of Bear deterrent in hand, finger on trigger I slogged through the dense forest, marshy flat ground and still thick snow."
Image by Mark Kalch courtesy Mark Kalch, SOURCE
Diary entry: "Turning a 17-foot kayak on a fast corner in an 18-foot wide river takes some doing."
Image by Mark Kalch courtesy Mark Kalch, SOURCE
Diary entry:"Pushing on to Fort Peck Lake and the first of the big, big reservoirs. 150 odd miles of NO FLOWING WATER! Nooo! The lake was a tough slog but supremely beautiful and in actual fact a 4.5 day crossing is pretty cracking."
Image by Mark Kalch courtesy Mark Kalch, SOURCE
Mark to ExWeb: "I am not a small person but had plenty of room inside the kayak. Which was just as well considering I would spend many weeks paddling for 12 hours a day without a break."
Image by Mark Kalch courtesy Mark Kalch, SOURCE
"In all honesty, the only difficult aspect of this 6083 km descent was missing my family."
Image by Mark Kalch courtesy Mark Kalch, SOURCE
7 Rivers 7 Continents: ExWeb interview with Mark Kalch, completing river no. 2, Missouri-Mississippi

Posted: Nov 02, 2012 06:10 pm EDT
(Correne Coetzer) Completing the second of his 7 Rivers 7 Continents Project, Mark Kalch says to ExplorersWeb he is constantly stoked that this project is such an amazing combination of difficult paddling descents and endless opportunities for a diverse range of stories.

Both the first river, the Amazon, and the Missouri-Mississippi are 6000km+ waterways, therefore, Mark says, paddling this distance takes a lot of time, patience and endurance regardless of the region or environment in which the river is to be found.

He paddled 117 days down the Missouri-Mississippi. The last night before he finally paddled into the Gulf of Mexico he slept little, he wrote in dispatch. "Thoughts of having to paddle back upstream, finding dry ground to camp in an area mostly marsh and populated by alligators to boot!"

River traffic on the Lower Mississippi had exploded to rush hour proportions, he added, and dodging them became half the battle.

ExplorersWeb caught up with Mark at home. He tells about planning a source-to-sea paddle, the condition of the river, his gear, his favorite times on the river, and lessons he had learned.

ExplorersWeb: How easy is it to determine a river source or is it obvious? How did you get to this source?

Mark: Most of the time it is rather difficult to determine the utmost source of a river. So many tributaries feed large rivers, which one is longest?

Fortunately, as is often the case we stand on the shoulders of giants. In determining the source of major rivers in present day has been made more straightforward by those that have gone before us. It is not as though you are starting from scratch. Although it is paramount not to take even historically accepted data as gospel. Use it as a starting point for your own research and go from there.

In the case of the Missouri-Mississippi River my research led me to one John LaRandeau. John’s passion is not simply the river but much more specifically its utmost source! I spent months conversing with John regarding Brower’s Spring. The clincher came when he forwarded me a near 100 page document containing maps, data and images he had put together over many years pertaining to his confirmation of the spring as the river’s source. On this river I was indeed lucky.

On the other rivers of my 7 rivers 7 continents project I may have to work a little harder.

ExplorersWeb: This was quite a different experience from the Amazon…

Mark: It was hugely different in so many ways but on the other hand shared a number of similarities, as might be expected of big river descents. Both the Amazon and the Missouri-Mississippi are 6000km+ waterways. Paddling this distance takes a lot of time, patience and endurance regardless of the region or environment in which the river is to be found.

I do suppose that many people (and initially myself included) assumed that a big river that threads its way across nearly the entire United States would be far from wild and isolated. So populated and so developed. How could you escape the influence of man in the same way as one might in the Amazon? Surprisingly easily in fact. On the upper Missouri, in beautiful Montana, there were days and weeks where I saw little impact from man. Similarly, crossing the big 3 lakes of Fort Peck. Sakakawea and Oahe meant I often encountered few others.

As well, the make-up of the 2 rivers differs greatly. On the Amazon from the source we first spent several weeks on foot, followed by nearly a month battling fierce whitewater before finally reaching flat water. On this North American descent I was able to put in with my kayak after just 2 days on foot and the whitewater I encountered was negligible.

ExplorersWeb: What was your main focus during your time on and off the river?

Mark: On river, miles were my main focus. For an expeditioneer whose journey hopes to be more than a purely athletic endeavor, there is a constant battle between forward progress and story gathering.

By paddling 70 miles in a day, often I probably missed out on a river story that would have been worthwhile and interesting to record. Some days I reprimanded myself for putting more importance on miles gained than experiences gained. Other days it was the opposite. A balancing act for sure.

Off river, as above, I strived to immerse myself in my surrounds. Making notes, recording images and throwing myself with an open mind into whichever environment I found myself. I really wanted to use this descent as a first real attempt to remove myself, to a large degree, from the expedition narrative. I have grown tired of talking about myself! Headwinds, aching muscle and bone, camp food.

Interesting...for a time. But 117 days of reporting this? No thanks. It was an experience for me to take this approach and I am reasonably pleased with the result. Can I improve? Most certainly.

ExplorersWeb: What challenges did you have?

Mark: In all honesty, the only difficult aspect of this 6083 km descent was missing my family. I have a 2 year old son and a 1 year old daughter who I did not see for 4 months. That was tough.

Otherwise, this paddle was a blast. Cold, hot, rain, wind and fatigue all made for an exhausting journey but in relative terms these things matter little to me. In my mind it would be silly to complain about conditions into which I have willingly placed myself, regardless of their seriousness.

ExplorersWeb: What were your favorite times?

Mark: So many. The upper Missouri in the mountains of Montana was spectacular. Clear water, green forests and snow capped mountains were my playground. The lakes I paddled across, while huge and obviously without flow gave one plenty of time to appreciate the fortunate position in which I found myself.

Below St. Louis, with a river at record lows due to drought, I had my pick of camp sites. Huge sand bars were exposed, littered with drift wood. A dry camp and open fire above a wide river which flowed lazily by, below a setting sun? Hard to beat.

ExplorersWeb: What type of kayak did you use and did it do fine?

Mark: For the entire descent I paddled a P & H Scorpio 170 kayak. A 17-foot plastic boat built for expeditions. It was the ideal craft for my descent and I cannot fault it’s performance. At journey’s end the only indication that the boat had been put through hell was a criss crossing of superficial scratches on the hull.

I am not a small person but had plenty of room inside the kayak. Which was just as well considering I would spend many weeks paddling for 12 hours a day without a break. Fast, stable, tough and comfortable. The perfect expedition boat in my mind.

ExplorersWeb: What were the 5 top items in your kayak?

Mark: In no particular order:

Kokatat paddling top - I wore it every day for 4 months (with a couple of washes in between!). Comfortable and offering 100% sun protection, it is the best paddling top I have ever used.

MSR Reactor stove - compact, super quick boil time and fuel efficient (on the upper river I stretched a single gas canister to last 14 days). By far my favorite stove. So it doesn’t simmer very well...harden up, you’re on expedition!

Zeal Optics All-in sunglasses - On the Amazon descent I wore my prescription Zeal Optics sunglasses from sun up to sunset. In the US it was no different. Glare from the sun and it’s reflection off the river is relentless. Without my sunglasses it would have been unbearable. The only undesirable side effect? Wicked sunglass tan!

Therma-rest NeoAir - At the end of a 12 hour day paddling I most looked forward to dinner and bed. The NeoAir rolls up to the size of a Nalgene bottle but inflates to a mattress 6.3cm thick and for my version 196cm long! Most comfortable mat ever. Perfect for paddling journeys.

Suunto Ambit - I have been partnered with Suunto since 2007 and use their wristop computers on all my journeys whether down the Amazon, across Iran or across the US. I used the Ambit for marking waypoints, measuring speed, elevation and weather checking. It did not leave my wrist for 117 days and indeed is on it now still!

ExplorersWeb: What did you learn from this river that you will take with you to the next one?

Mark: A few things. Being out of touch (which I purposefully wanted to be on this descent) does not necessarily mean forgoing adequate mobile communications. I barely had any comms for 4 months. Carrying a smart phone would have been a good idea. Not to tweet or update more often but for weather, mapping, regional info and of course phone calls. Next time for sure I will carry a smart phone.

Hopefully I can further refine this balance between an arduous journey and storytelling. I under-estimated how being utterly exhausted most of the time would impact my ability to seek out interesting river stories and compose them as words and images. As well, storytelling is an art form and not something you can hope to excel at without practice. Something I shall endeavor to work on.

ExplorersWeb: How is the condition/health of the rivers? What pollution did you see?

Mark: Perhaps my biggest surprise of the journey was the, at least superficial, health and cleanliness of the rivers and lakes. With the river crossing nearly the entire US and finding itself beside huge urban centers so often I had expected much more litter and visible pollution. It is difficult to assess the health of the river beyond noting how clean it’s surface and banks are, however I am confident things are getting better.

In the US and on this big river a big part of this is down to the efforts of Missouri River Relief and American Rivers. Both these awesome organizations work hard to protect and clean the Missouri-Mississippi River. Clean-up days, awareness efforts and constant campaigning to keep US rivers clean has made real and noticeable change.

Statistics of paddling the longest river in North America and 4th longest in the world provided by Mark Kalch:

Start point (source) and date: Brower’s Spring, Centennial Mountains, Montana June 11th, 2012
End point (sea) and date: 1 mile beyond Port Eads, Louisiana (South Pass into Gulf of Mexico) October 5th, 2012
Distance: 6083km / 3780 miles
Days: 117 days

The 7 rivers, 7 continents project is an endeavor to complete source to sea paddling descents of the longest river on each continent. A combined total distance of 35,000 km (22,000 miles).

- Amazon River (South America) – 6937 km (4300 miles) – completed 2007/2008
- Nile River (Africa) – 6650 km (4132 miles)
- Yangtze River (Asia) – 6300 km (3916 miles)
- Missouri – Mississippi River (North America) – 6275 km (3912 miles) - completed 2012
- Volga River (Europe) – 3645 km (2266 miles)
- Murray-Darling River (Australia) – 3370 km (2904 miles)
- Onyx River (Antarctica) – 40 km (25 miles)

Previous / Related:

7 rivers 7 continents: Mark Kalch second source to sea paddle

Expedition Amazonas interview, final: "The entire journey is etched upon my mind and my heart for eternity"

Mark Kalch’s Iran crossing debrief: "Iran is not simply about nuclear ambitions and politics"

Mark Kalch biography

7 Rivers 7 Continents site

Mark Kalch on Twitter

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